By Peter Ross

IN his python-skin boots, in his leather waistcoat, crucifix catching the light from the bay window, David Keenan puts on a record and a voice swoons in the afternoon gloom: Don’t look so sad, I know it’s over …

That’s Perry Como. The song is For The Good Times. It gives a title and a certain elegiac tone to Keenan’s new novel.

“I should tell you,” he says. “This is the song we played at my dad’s funeral.”

But life goes on. And this old world will keep on turning …

Keenan sits by the fire. He looks solemn. This song hurts him. We’re in the living room of the Glasgow flat he shares with his wife, Heather Leigh, an American musician. Books everywhere. On the mantelpiece: a stuffed loon, a bird which he admires for its eerie nocturnal cry.

There’s no need to watch the bridges that are burning …

“What a voice,” he says. “A remarkable voice. I used to think, ‘Och, my dad listens to a bunch of sentimental crap.’ But there’s such weight to that song. It’s elemental. He was definitely the soundtrack to my childhood, Perry Como.”

That childhood was spent in Shettleston and Airdrie. In his twenties, Keenan looked like the young Bob Dylan; now, at 47, he’s like a character from one of Dylan’s later songs, maybe from Street Legal: walrus moustache, chunky rings, tarot cards in his pockets.

After spells as a musician, music journalist, and record shop owner, he has lately come to some prominence as that rare thing – an original voice in British fiction. His 2017 debut novel, This Is Memorial Device, was a fictionalised oral history of the post-punk scene in Airdrie and Coatbridge. For The Good Times, set largely in 1970s Belfast, “the best decade what ever lived”, is narrated by Samuel McMahon, a foot soldier in the IRA. It has livewire masculine energy allied to something hallucinatory and experimental. Think Scorsese’s Mean Streets meets Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.

Keenan’s father Tom was a Catholic from Belfast. He grew up with four brothers and three sisters in the Ardoyne, an estate notable for a significant number of killings and other sectarian attacks. Tom’s father had been a member of the IRA – according to Keenan – and Tom, sick of the fighting, left Northern Ireland in the late 1960s.

This Memorial Device: Review

He joined the Merchant Navy, met and married Elizabeth, settled in Scotland, got a job in a shoe shop, started a family. But although he left the Troubles, the Troubles never left him. During the 1970s and 80s, family and friends of the family would come and stay. Mostly, these men – who taught the young David how to drink, smoke, tell a story – were taking time out from Belfast’s poisonous atmosphere, but there was sometimes a feeling that they might be on the run. The family was pro-Republican, Keenan says, and those still living in the Ardoyne would certainly defend their community mob-handed against attempts to burn one of them out. But as for active involvement in terrorism? Well, there were a few members of his extended family in Northern Ireland who he found frightening, who oozed violence, but he can’t say anything for sure.

For The Good Times is, in part, an exploration of the romance of violence. “One of the things I wanted to ask was how these cold-hearted murderers could be seen as heroes in their community. That was always fascinating and difficult for me.” A “traumatic, horrifying” moment from his childhood was watching, on the news, the so-called “corporals killings” – the 1988 murders of undercover British soldiers Derek Wood and David Howe, dragged from their car during the funeral procession of an IRA member. “I remember their naked bodies lying on the ground as a priest gave them the last rites,” Keenan recalls. “And I’ll always remember my dad, sitting watching, said, ‘There’s a f**king war on, what do you expect?’ No qualms. He felt that it was entirely justified.”

Tom Keenan died on New Year’s Day, 2013. For The Good Times is, at heart, more about fathers and sons than about the Troubles. Keenan remembers his dad as very loving, but also a fighter. “My childhood was an initiation into violence.” He remembers one incident in particular. Visiting Rothesay when he was nine, ten years old; they were in an arcade, playing the penny falls, when his father knocked a man through the window. “It was terrifying, there was blood everywhere.” They ran, hid from the police; Keenan promised not to tell his mother.

Yet, for all this, Tom seems to have been a tender parent, “a man made to be a father”, and in many ways a catalyst for his son’s amped-up, vamped-up writing style. “My dad had no qualifications. My dad didn’t go to school. My dad couldn’t read or write. But he would encourage me to read as much as possible. He thought an education was an amazing thing. If my dad could’ve read, though, he’d have been so disappointed by most books. So his illiteracy is a huge inspiration to me as a writer. I want to write books that live up to an illiterate person’s idea of their potential.

This Memorial Device: Review

“Even in terms of grammar. Some of the language I get into in the book was inspired by my dad’s attempts at writing. The famous last birthday card I got from him had a comma after every word. It said, ‘Always comma remember comma you comma are comma an comma very comma special comma person.’ There’s something poetic and beautiful about that.”

When working as a music journalist, Keenan used to talk about how he wanted to write in a manner that was as exciting as the sounds he was hearing. In his fiction, he takes a similar approach: an adrenalised style as intense as the lives he is attempting to relate. “I want my books to be, like, high energy. I want for you to fly through them and never stumble, but I don’t believe in that stripped-down Hemingway punchy language. I think you can have a rapturous transparency.”

His work is driven by an urge to record and honour a particular time and place and people. “Memorial Device and For The Good Times, I felt destined to write those books. Ever since I was young, I knew I would write a book in pure gratitude for the magic of Airdrie, a book written against the idea of grim towns, because for me Airdrie was totally romantic and magical and amazing. And I wanted to write a book about these dirt poor guys in the Ardoyne, living in the middle of a f**king warzone, but still having this incredible resilience and life force. I would sit around listening to my dad and his brothers telling stories and think, ‘One day I’m going to immortalise this because it’s remarkable.’”

Those Keenans, they were all into Como. Their whole look and attitude was of yesteryear; a cologne-heavy whiff of the rat pack cutting through the burning stink of Belfast. Could you tell a joke, sing a song, wear a suit? Those were the things that were valued. Life was a performance, and Keenan, as a boy, a willing audience and pupil. “So I had to write these books. Almost like a paying back.”

Since his father’s death his fiction has flowered. A loss, then new life. He started writing a first novel while still running his record shop, but came to consider it wretched. “So I made a vow to myself: when I finish this book I will destroy it and start again. I though that was an important thing – to write with no hope of publication or of anyone reading it. So, I wrote this shit novel and not only did I delete it from my computer, I smashed my laptop with a hammer and threw it in the bin.”

How did that feel?


No regrets? He shakes his head, smiles. “No. It’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever done. I was proud of myself. No one even knew I was writing novels. I just had this private pact with myself. And that taught me how to be a writer. I started my next book and that was it. I found my voice, I found my obsessions, and I was off.”

For The Good Times, by David Keenan, published by Faber & Faber on January 24th, £12.99